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December 4, 2011

Practice makes perfect- Training your brain for music


Were you ever forced to learn an instrument as a young child? Did you ever hear the dreadful words "have you practiced today" or did you have to have your parents sign papers indicating that you did indeed practice 1hr of flute each day, so that you may receive an A in music class. Or were you one of the fortunate children who actually enjoyed playing an instrument?
The common notion is that practicing music has beneficial effects. In addition we often say that musicians are wired differently, that they approach problems differently. But what does that mean in the neuroanatomical sense?
A study by Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug compared brain regions of musicians and non-musicians with the voxel-by-voxel morphometirc technique to try and uncover anatomical differences amongst the two groups' brain structures.
Their approach was to say that musicians learn certain motor and auditory skills in their musical practice, and that such learning would evoke some difference in the brains of adult musicians compared to non-musicians. Their results provided grounds that there was indeed a difference in brain anatomy between the test subjects, a volumetric difference in the gray matter. Musicians had a larger gray matter in the motor, auditory and spatial-visual areas of the brain than non-musicians. However the researchers were unable to determine whether or not this difference was predisposed or acquired. The researchers suggest that the difference in gray matter volume is induced through practice rather than being predisposed, however they were unable to prove their hypothesis since their experiment did not specifically focus on the issue.
Several years later one of the researchers, Gottfried Schlaug, teamed up with several other researchers to focus on the brain development of young musicians. This experiment measured the regional brain plasticity of young children. One group received musical training for 15 months while the other didn't. Their results indicated that children with musical training did indeed have a greater voxel size expansion meaning it diverged from the typical brain development.
Even though the results indicated that musical training does result in increasing gray matter of certain anatomical regions in the brain, the researchers could not completely rule out the idea of a genetic predisposition. Meaning the question whether nature or nurture is responsible for the volumetric difference, still stands. Do we have to be born a musician or can we learn to be one. Either way, both papers seem to indicate that there are beneficial factors to learning an instrument at a young age. So for those of us who were forced to learn an instrument, it indicates that no harm was done at least not in the conventional sense. A fear from pianos (pianophobia)_or other instruments (instrumentophobia) due to horrid enslaving teachers is a different story, one that would take us more into the direction of psychology. But if your parents are still disappointed that you didn't turn out to be a great musician, just indicate that nature might still have a role and that maybe you just weren't meant to be the next Beethoven.



Original Sources:
Gaser, C., Schlaug, G; (2003). Brain Structures Differ Between Musicians and Non-Musicians. The Journal of Neuroscience. 23.27.

Hyde, K. L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A. C., Schlaug, G., (2009). Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain development. The Journal of neuroscience. 29, 10.
Posted by      Rebecca v. at 3:27 PM MST

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